The Great Chronicle of Buddhas

by Ven. Mingun Sayadaw | 1990 | 1,044,401 words

This page describes Definition of Kappa or Aeon contained within the book called the Great Chronicle of Buddhas (maha-buddha-vamsa), a large compilation of stories revolving around the Buddhas and Buddhist disciples. This page is part of the series known as anudīpanī on words and phrases. This great chronicle of Buddhas was compiled by Ven. Mingun Sayadaw who had a thorough understanding of the thousands and thousands of Buddhist teachings (suttas).

Part 3 - Definition of Kappa or Aeon

What is called Kambhā in Myanmar is Kappa in Pāli. Therefore, it is said in the text of the Buddhavaṃsa: “kappe ca satasahasse, caturo ca asankhiye” etc.

The duration of a kappa cannot be calculated by the number of years. It is known only by inference. Suppose there is a big granary which is one yojana each in length, breath and height and which is full of tiny mustard seeds. You throw out just one seed each century. When all the mustard seeds have been thrown out, the period called kappa have not come to an end yet. (From this, it is to be inferred that the word kappa in Pāli or the word kambhā in Myanmar is an extremely long time. But, nowadays, the word kambhā exactly means such a period is forgotten, and the word is used in the sense of the mass of the earth as in the expression kambā-mye-pyin (earth surface), kambā-mye-lone (the globe), etc.

Divisions of kappa

It should therefore be noted that kambhā and kappa are the same. The kappa is of six divisions: (1) Mahā-kappa, (2) Asaṅkhyeyya-kappa, (3) Antara-kappa, (4) Āyu-kappa, (5) Hāyana-kappa and (6) Vaddhana-kappa.

One Mahā-kappa is made up of four Asaṅkhyeyya-kappas, namely, (a) the kappa in the process of dissolution (Saṃvaṭṭa-kappa), (b) the kappa in the state of dissolution (Saṃvaṭṭaṭṭhāyi-kappa). (c) the kappa in the process of evolution (Vivaṭṭa-kappa) and (d) the kappa in the state of evolution (Vivaṭṭaṭṭhāyi-kappa). That is to say, these four Asaṅkhyeyya-kappas called Saṃvaṭṭa Asaṅkhyeyya-kappa, Saṃvaṭṭaṭṭhāyi Asaṅkhyeyyakappa, Vivaṭṭa Asaṅkhyeyya-kappa and Vivaṭṭaṭṭhāyi Asaṅkhyeyya-kappa make one Mahākappa).

Of these four Asaṅkhyeyya-kappas, the Saṃvaṭṭa-kappais the period beginning from the falling of the great rain, which heralds the dissolution of kappa till the extinction of flames, if the kappa is to be dissolved by fire; or till the receding of floods, if the kappa is to be dissolved by water; or till the cessation of storms, if the kappa is to be dissolved by the air element.

The Saṃvaṭṭaṭṭhāyi-kappa is the period beginning from the moment of dissolution of the world by fire, water or the air element till the falling of the great rain which heralds the evolution of a new world.

The Vivaṭṭa-kappa is the period beginning from the falling of the great rain which heralds the evolution of the new world till the appearance of the sun, the moon, and the stars and planets.

The Vivaṭṭaṭṭhāyi-kappa is the period beginning from the appearance of the sun, the moon and the stars and planets to the falling of the great rain which heralds the dissolution of the world.

Thus there are two kinds of kappa-dissolving rain: The first kind is the great rain which falls in any kappa when it is nearing it dissolution either by fire, or by water, or by the air element. First, there is a great downpour of rain all over the universe which is to be dissolved. Then, taking advantage of the rain, people start cultivation. When plants, which are big enough for cattle to feed on, appear, the rain ceases completely. It is rain which heralds the dissolution of a kappa.

The second kind is also a great downpour but it falls when a kappa is to be dissolved by water. It is not an ordinary rain-fall, but a very unusual one, for it has the power to smash even a rocky mountain into smithereens.

(An elaborate description of the dissolution of a kappa by fire, water or the air element is given in the chapter on the Pubbenivāsānussati Abhiññā of the Visuddhimagga translation.) The above-mentioned four Asaṅkhyeyya-kappas are of the same duration, which cannot be reckoned in terms of years. That is why they are known as Asaṅkhyeyya-kappas (Aeons of Incalculable Length).

These four Asaṅkhyeyya-kappas constitute one Mahā-kappa (Great Aeon). The Myanmar word ‘kambhā’ is (sometimes) used in the sense of the Pāli Mahā-kappa. The Myanmar language has no separate word for Asaṅkhyeyya-kappa, but it adopts Asaṅkhyeyya-kap as a derivative from Pāli.

Antara-kappa, etc

At the beginning of the Vivaṭṭaṭṭhāyi Asaṅkhyeyya-kappa (i.e. the beginning of the world) people live for incalculable (asaṅkhyeyya) years. As time goes on, they are overcome by such mental defilement as lobha (greed), dosa (anger), etc. and consequently their life span gradually decreases until it becomes only ten years. Such a period of decrease is called Hāyana-kappa in Pāli or hsuk-kap or chuk-kap (aeon of decrease) in Myanmar.

On the contrary, owing to the occurrence and uplift of such wholesome principles as sublime states of mind, namely, mettā (loving-kindness), etc. the life span of generations of their descendents doubles up gradually until it becomes incalculable years. Such a period of increase in life span from ten years to incalculable years is called Vaddhanap-kappa in Pāli or tat-kap (aeon of increase) in Myanmar. (For further details of these two periods of increase and decrease in the human life span, refer to Cakkavatti Sutta of the Pāthika Vagga in the Dīgha Nikāya.)

Thus, the life span of human beings goes up and down between ten years and incalculable as they develop meritoriousness or are overcome by their demeritoriousness. A pair of life span, an increasing one and a decreasing one is called an Antara-kappa.

Three Kinds of Antara-kappa

At the beginning of the world, when people’s life span declines from incalculable years to ten years, a change of kappa takes place. If the decline is due to the particularly overpowering state of greed, then there occurs scarcity of food and all evil persons perish during the last seven days of kappa. Such a round of time is called Dubbhikkhantara-kappa or the aeon of famine.

If the decline is due to the particularly overpowering state of bewilderment, then there occurs an epidemic of diseases and all evil persons perish during the last seven days of the kappa. Such a round of time is called Rogantara-kappa or the aeon of diseases.

If the decline of life span is due to the particularly overpowering state of hatred, then there occur killings of one another with arms and all evil persons perish during the last seven days of the kappa. Such a round of time is called Satthantara-kappa or the aeon of weapons. (According to the Visuddhi-magga Mahatika, however, the Rogantara-kappa is brought about by the particularly overpowering state of greed, the Satthantara-kappa by the particularly overpowering state of hatred and the Dubbhikkhantara-kappa by the particularly overpowering state of bewilderment; then evil persons perish.)

The naming of each pair of life spans–one increasing and the other decreasing as Antara-kappa may be explained thus: before all is dissolved either by fire, water or the air element at the end of Vivaṭṭaṭṭhāyi-Asaṅkhyeyya-kappa and whenever the life span becomes ten years, all evil persons are perished with famine, diseases or weapons. In accordance with this statement, here it refers to the intermediate period of decrease between one period of total destruction and another.

After the calamity that befalls during the final seven days of each Antara-kappa, the name Rogantara-kappa, Satthantara-kappa or Dubbhikkhantara-kappa is given to the period of misfortune which befalls before the ten years life span (not in the whole world but) in a limited region such as a town or a village. If there appears an epidemic of diseases, we say there is Rogantara-kappa in that region; if there is an outbreak of war, we say there is Satthantara-kappa in that region; if there occurs starvation, we say there is Dubbhikkhantara-kappa in that region. Such a saying is just figurative because the regional incident is similar to the cosmic. When in prayers, one mentions “three kappas” from which one wishes to be free, one usually refers to these three great disasters.

At the completion of 64 Antara-kappas (each Antara-kappa consisting of a pair of increasing and decreasing aeons), a Vivaṭṭaṭṭhāyi Asaṅkhyeyya-kappa comes to an end. Since there are no living beings (in human and celestial realms) during the Saṃvaṭṭa Asaṅkhyeyya-kappa, Saṃvaṭṭaṭṭhāyi Asaṅkhyeyya-kappa and Vivaṭṭaṭṭhāyi Asaṅkhyeyyakappa, these kappas are not reckoned in terms of Antara-kappa, which consists of a set of increasing and decreasing aeons. But it should be noted that each of these Asaṅkhyeyyakappas, lasting as long as 64 Antara-kappas, are of the same duration as a Vivaṭṭaṭṭhāyi Asaṅkhyeyya-kappa.

Āyu kappa

Āyu-kappa means a period which is reckoned in accordance with the span of life (āyu) of that period. If the life span is one hundred, a century is an Āyu-kappa;if it is one thousand, a millennium is an Āyu-kappa.

When the Buddha said: “Ānanda, I have developed the four Iddhipadas (bases of psychic power). If I so desire, I can live either a whole kappa or a little more than a kappa,” the kappa therein should be taken as an Āyu-kappa, which is the duration of life of people living in that period. It is explained in the Aṭṭhaka Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Commentary that the Buddha made such a declaration meaning to say that He could live one hundred years on a little more if He so desired.

Mahāsiva Thera, however, said: “The Āyu-kappa here is to be taken as the Mahā-kappa called Bhaddaka.” (He said so because he held that the kamma, that causes rebirth in the final existence of a Buddha, has the power of prolonging His life span for incalculable years and because it is mentioned in the Pāli Texts that Āyupālakaphalasamāpatti, the fruition-attainment that conditions and controls the life-sustaining mental process called Āyusankhara, can ward off all its dangers.) But the Thera’s view is not accepted by commentators.

The Sanghabhedakkakkhandhaka of the Vinaya Cūḷavagga states: “He who causes a schism of the Sangha is reborn in Niraya, realms of continuous suffering, and suffers there for a whole kappa.” “That kappa is the life span of Avīci, the lowest realm of continuous suffering,” explains the Commentary. The life span of Avīci inmates is equal to one eightieth of a Mahā-kappa, according to the Terasakaṇḍa-Tika, a voluminous Sub-Commentary on the Vinaya. In the same work, it is particularly mentioned that one eightieth of that duration should be reckoned as an Antara-kappa (of Avīci inmates). It, therefore, follows that one Mahā-kappa is made up of 80 Antara-kappas according to the reckoning of Avīci inmates.

It may be clarified that, as mentioned above, one Mahā-kappa has four Asaṅkhyeyya-kappas, and one Asaṅkhyeyya-kappa has 64 Antara-kappa. Therefore, one Mahā-kappa is equivalent to 256 Antara-kappa by human calculations.

If 256 is divided by 80, the remainder is 3(1/5) or 3.2. Therefore, 3(1/5) Antara-kappa of human beings make one Antara-kappa Avīci inmates. (In Avīci there is no evolving and dissolving kappas as in the human world. Since it is the place that knows suffering at all times, the end of each dissolving kappa is not marked with the three periods of misfortune. One eightieth of a Mahā-kappa which is the life span of Avīci inmates is their Antarakappa. Therefore by one Antara-kappa of Avīci is meant 3(1/5) Antara-kappa human beings.)

In this way, it may be assumed that one Asaṅkhyeyya-kappa is equal to 64 Antara-kappas of human beings and 20 Antara-kappas of Avīci inmates. Therefore, when some Pāli Text (such as the Visuddhi-magga Mahā-Tīka, the Abhidhammattha-vibhāvanī Tīka, etc.) say that one Asaṅkhyeyya-kappa contains either 64 or 20 Antara-kappas, the figures do not contradict each other. The difference between the numbers (64 and 20) lies only in the manner of calculation. It should be noted that the two are of the same length of time.

A particularly noteworthy thing is a statement in the Sammohavinodanī, the Commentary on the Abhidhamma Vibhanga. In the exposition Nāna-vibhaṅga, it is said: “Only Sanghabhedaka-kamma (the act of causing schism in the Sangha) results in suffering a whole kappa. Should a man, owing to his such act, be reborn in Avīci at the beginning or in the middle of the kappa, he would gain release only when the kappa dissolves. If he were reborn in that realm of suffering today and if the kappa dissolves tomorrow, he should then suffer just one day and would be free tomorrow. (But) there is no such possibility.”

On account of this statement, there are some who opine that “The Sanghabhedaka-kamma leads to Niraya for the whole aeon (in the sense of Mahā-kappa); he who commits this kamma gains freedom only when the kappa dissolves. As a matter of fact, the expression “kappaṭṭhitiyo” (lasting for the whole kappa) is explained in the Vibhaṅga Commentary only in a general manner; it does not emphatically mention the word Maha-kappatthitiyo (lasting for the whole Mahā-kappa). The expression kappaṭṭhitiyo is based on a verse in the

Vinaya Cūlavagga which reads to the effect that “having destroyed the unity of the Sangha, one suffers in Niraya for the whole kappa.” Therefore, the kappa here should be taken only as Āyu-kappa but not Mahā-kappa. In the 13th chapter of the Kathvatthu Commentary, it is said in dealing with kappa that the verse has been composed with reference to Āyukappa (of Avīci inmates) which is only one eightieth of Mahā-kappa.

Divisions of Mahā-kappa

Mahā-kappa is divided into two classes: (1) Suñña-kappa or Empty Aeon and (2) Asuññakappa or Non-empty Aeon.

Of these two, the aeon in which Buddhas do not appear is Suñña-kappa or Empty Aeon; it means the aeon which is void of a Buddha.

The aeon in which Buddhas appear is Asuñña-kappa or Non-empty aeon; it means the aeon which is not void of a Buddha.

Though Buddhas do not appear in an Empty Aeon, that there can be appearance of Private Buddhas and Universal Monarchs, may be inferred from the Upāli Thera Sutta in the first Vagga of the Apādāna.

In the Upāli Thera Sutta and its Commentary, it is said two aeons prior to this one, Prince Khattiya, son of King Añjasa, on his departure from a park, committed an offence against Paccekabuddha Devīla. No text mentions the appearance of a Buddha in that aeon. In the Commentary on the Bhaddaji Thera Sutta of the Apādāna, too, it is stated that the Thera had given alms-food to five hundred Paccekabuddhas in a Suñña-kappa. It is clear from these texts that Paccekabuddhas appear in Suñña-kappa. Again the Kusumāsaniya Thera Sutta of the Apādāna mentions that “future Kusumāsaniya was reborn as Universal Monarch Varadassī in the aeon that immediately followed.” The Tiṇasanthara Thera Sutta of the same work also says that “future Tiṇasanthara Thera was reborn as Universal Monarch Migasammata in the second aeon prior to the present one” suggesting that there is the possibility of the appearance of Universal Monarchs in any empty aeon.

The Non-Empty Aeon in which Buddhas appear is divided into five classes:

(a) the aeon in which a single Buddha appears is known as Sāra-kappa,
(b) the aeon in which two Buddhas appear is known as Manḍa-kappa,
(c) the aeon in which three Buddhas appear is known as Vara-kappa,
(d) the aeon in which four Buddhas appear is known as Sāramaṇḍa-kappa, and
(e) the aeon in which five Buddhas appear is known as Bhaddha-kappa.

The aeon that witnessed the existence of Sumedha, as mentioned in the Chapter on Sumedha the brahmin, is Sāramaṇḍa-kappa because there appear four Buddhas in that aeon. The city of Amaravati came into existence after the appearance of three Buddhas, namely, Taṇkaṅkara, Medhaṅkara, and Saranaṅkara, and before the appearance of Dīpaṅkarā.

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